the time I referred to “the black guy”, and other tales of racial awkwardness

A couple weeks ago, I posted a list of resources for talking to kids about racism.  As it happens, a few people “pinned” the post onto Pinterest.  As a blogger, checking Pinterest is interesting, because you can see commentary on your posts from people who don’t necessarily read your blog (or know anything about you).  Last week, I noticed a comment on a pin of that post – the description was “how to talk to kids about race”.  A woman replied (I’m assumed without having actually read the post);

This is so great! We always teach our kids never to notice the race of others.  Whenever one of them comments on someone else’s race, we remind them that we don’t talk about that.

Of course, the irony here is that this is exactly the opposite of what my message was . . . so I found it amusing but also a bit disconcerting.  It got me thinking a little, though, about how prevalent this mindset is.  I notice how uncomfortable my students are at the beginning of each semester when I teach a graduate level diversity class.  It is really hard for some of them to talk openly about racial bias, especially in a diverse classroom. And honestly?  I don’t know that I am completely immune to it myself.  I definitely think our society has some unspoken rules about talking about race.  Here’s a few ways I have seen it play out:

talking about race diversity the office

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The kids and I are at Trader Joe’s.  I’m in a long check-out line, and the kids are anxious to go up to the manager’s station and get their prized lollipop. This is a new store, so the kids aren’t as familiar with the layout, but I send them up by themselves because it’s in my line of vision and because it makes them feel important.  I can see the kids standing in front of the long counter at the front of the store, confused, because there are three different windows, and they can’t read the sign that designates which window they should approach.  There are three people behind the counter: a white man, a white woman, and a black man.  The black man is the one working behind the sign that says “manager’s station”.  My kids look back at me with confusion, since they can’t read it.  “Which one?” they pantomime.  I point, but they can’t tell where I’m pointing.  They are about 20 feet away from me in a crowded store, so I have to yell to be heard. 

“It’s the man!”  I yell.

“Which one?” They ask.

“The one in the Hawaiian shirt” I yell back, realizing they are both wearing the same thing.

“Which one?” They implore. 

I look around.  At least 15 people are within earshot, likely hearing everything I’m saying. Again, I try to avoid saying it.

“The guy on the right!”  I yell.  They remain confused . . . still not quite old enough to understand that concept.  I wrestle in my mind. What can’t I just say it?  This is ridiculous.  It’s a descriptor.  I’m just going to say it.

“The black guy!”  I yell. 

My kids nod appreciatively, but simultaneously I swear I hear a record scratch, as every eye in the checkout line turns on me.  Me, who dared to speak it out loud.  Me, who referred to someone by their race.  Some people shake their head, others roll their eyes at my apparent rudeness.  The bagger looks embarrassed for me, and I regret having said it.

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I am at a playdate with a group of other moms.  There is a new mom there, and we are making small talk, as people do.  She asks about the ages of my kids, and I ask about hers.  Then she asks which children are mine – and glances out at the playground, where about 20 kids of similar age are playing. 

“My daughter is the blond there, in the pink dress . . . with the ponytail.  And the other one is the blond toddler on the ladder.  And my sons are the two black boys*.”

She looks like a deer in headlights.  A couple other moms look stunned, too.  Someone pipes in to explain that my children are adopted, but I feel like what she’s really trying to do is rescue  me from my guffaw.  I quietly wonder why I feel like I have to play the “descriptor dance” whenever pointing out my boys at school pickup or after church.  Why do I have to list 5 descriptors when one is the most obvious?  Especially when they are so often the minority, why do I have to skirt around it and describe their shirt, their hair, their age . . . when referring to their race cuts to the chase?

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We are at preschool for open house, seated at a child’s table with several other parents and their small children.  A little girl points to my son, and excitedly makes an observation to her mom.

CURIOUS GIRL: Mommy, do you SEE him!?! He's brown!

MORTIFIED MOM: (clearly embarrassed) Honey, be quiet.

CURIOUS GIRL: Mommy, do you see? Do you see that boy?

MORTIFIED MOM: Sweetie, BE QUIET. Be quiet right now.

CURIOUS GIRL: But mommy, look! He's brown.

MORTIFIED MOM: (whispering through gritted teeth) If you don't stop saying that right now, I will give you a spanking.

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These are just a few examples from my own life.  Obviously, I don’t think everyone has such hang-ups with talking about race . . . in fact I suspect that this is an issue unique to white folks.  But I do find it interesting that in seven years of raising black children, I have never had the experience of someone describing his race without some serious dancing around other descriptors first.  “The one with the braids? Blue shirt?  Brown hair?”  Always.

Contrast this with my own kids, who I’ve raised to talk really openly about race.  They are at a very diverse preschool, and it is so interesting to hear them describe their classmates to one another.  Almost always, if they are talking about a schoolmate that the other doesn’t know, one will say, “what color skin and hair does he have?”  And the other will describe – with no judgment and no baggage surrounding it, the skin color of their friend.

What do you think?  Do you notice a reluctance for people to use racial descriptors?  Have we gone so overboard with our good intentions to not judge others based on skin color, that we can’t even comfortably mention skin color now?  And more importantly, what do you think all of this dancing around really does in terms of defeating racism?


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